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Breaking point

Region’s voters step up their opposition to higher property taxes

Cathie Boucher (left) and Sarah Seabury Ward carried signs with opposing opinions on the failed override request in Newbury last month. Cathie Boucher (left) and Sarah Seabury Ward carried signs with opposing opinions on the failed override request in Newbury last month. (Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)
By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2011

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Facing economic hardship and uncertain job prospects, voters this year are rejecting pleas to approve property tax increases that would spare cuts in local services and support school spending.

The issue has divided voters in 23 of 57 Massachusetts communities north of Boston as local leaders struggle to craft balanced budgets for the upcoming fiscal year in the face of falling state aid and dwindling local receipts. Voters in eight communities — Boxford, Essex, Georgetown, Groveland, Marblehead, Saugus, Topsfield, and Winchester — had more than one request to consider.

Some of the tax questions were debt or capital exclusions, which are temporary increases to pay for specific projects. A debt exclusion raises taxes over the period of time — usually 20 years — it takes to repay debt; a capital exclusion is a one-year tax increase to cover a capital expense.

Others were general overrides, permanent increases above the limits of Proposition 2 1/2, the state’s property tax cap law. These increases are often earmarked for the day-to-day cost of providing local services.

In Saugus, local leaders are asking voters to approve a one-time tax assessment for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, to cover the town’s snow and ice deficit from this year’s harsh winter. Because the measure is neither an exclusion nor an override, special legislation had to be passed by Beacon Hill lawmakers and approved by Governor Deval Patrick for the proposal to be put to Saugus voters. After clearing those hurdles earlier this spring, a special election will decide the question on Tuesday.

Regardless of what form the proposals took, a bigger tax bill is a burden that many voters refused to accept. Of the 24 questions decided so far this spring, 13 were rejected. Voters in five communities — Essex, Lynnfield, Marblehead, North Andover, and Saugus — are still debating the issue.

The defeats ranged from a proposed $130,000 override in Rowley to help fund the town’s fiscal 2012 assessment for the Triton Regional School District to a request for a $9.1 million debt exclu sion in Chelmsford to fund construction of a new fire headquarters.

“It’s back to the drawing board,’’ said Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen. “At this point, there are no further plans for a new Central Fire Station. I wouldn’t expect another plan to be put together until next spring. Until then, we will continue to limp along.’’

Had the Chelmsford question been approved, the property tax bill for the average single-family home assessed at $324,573 would have increased $7 in the upcoming fiscal year. The temporary tax rise would have lasted 20 years — the life of the debt — and reached its apex in fiscal 2013, at $13, Cohen said.

In several of the communities where tax proposals were defeated, some residents cast a critical eye on local spending plans, questioning whether the additional revenue was truly necessary. Voters in Newbury, for example, demanded the town address its fiscal woes by slashing spending rather than raising taxes. The rejected $950,000 override would have added about $320 to the fiscal 2012 tax bill of a house valued at $434,000.

“There are people in our community who can’t afford a tax increase,’’ said Ronald P. Barrett, a Plum Island resident who voted against the Newbury override proposal. “I know a woman who can’t afford to turn on her water. I have buddies who aren’t making as much as they used to. They live in our community, and they want the government to do what they have to do, and live within its means.’’

In five communities — Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Topsfield, and Winchester — voters passed tax increases to cover certain expenses while rejecting others.

Voter ambivalence is understandable considering the economic hardship of what has come to be called the Great Recession, said Barbara Anderson, executive director of the Marblehead-based Citizens for Limited Taxation. Many people simply can’t afford to pay more in taxes, she said.

Still, in 11 communities — Boxford, Dracut, Georgetown, Groveland, Hamilton. Manchester-by-the-Sea, Swampscott, Topsfield, Wenham, West Newbury, and Winchester — this spring, voters approved measures that will raise their property taxes. Six of those increases were for $1.25 million or less; a majority of the additional dollars will be allocated to school expenses.

Groveland voters, for example, approved $5.16 million to fund repairs at Bagnall Elementary School, while Hamilton voters supported a debt exclusion to cap the town’s former landfill, a project that is expected to cost about $2 million.

The largest successful tax increase, a $59.96 million debt exclusion to renovate Dracut High School, was approved by a 2 to 1 ratio. Town officials expect the Massachusetts School Building Authority to cover about 62.5 percent of the construction cost, bringing the town’s share down to $24 million, according to Ann Vandal, Dracut’s finance director. The estimated increase for a property assessed at $271,782 will be about $142 per year for the 25-year life of the debt.

“I think what hit home with voters was that the needs were just so evident,’’ said Joe Wilkie, chairman of the Friends of a New Dracut High School, a group formed to support the project, noting that the existing high school has an aging roof, drafty windows, an obsolete boiler, and outdated technology.

Even in some of the communities that passed overrides, local officials have had to review their funding priorities.

In West Newbury, where voters approved a $267,000 override, education officials last month had to once again scrutinize their budget for the Pentucket Regional School District after voters in Groveland and Merrimac rejected override requests that would have funded their respective shares of the proposed budget for fiscal 2012.

Following the defeat, the Regional School Committee trimmed its spending plans and Groveland funded its share of Pentucket’s budget. School officials are now awaiting a June 13 vote by a Special Town Meeting in Merrimac, when voters will decide whether to fully fund — without an override — the town’s assessment for Pentucket’s revised $32.8 million budget.

“The overrides weren’t successful this year, and I think it’s a shame, because the schools are not crying wolf,’’ said Christine M. Reading of West Newbury, chairwoman of Pentucket’s School Committee. “We are at a crisis point. In the past couple of years, federal stimulus money helped us, but that money is gone now. I don’t know what will happen, where we will go from here.’’

Because voters often balk at a call for higher property taxes, several communities have refused to even entertain the idea. In Medford, officials said voters would not support an override proposal given the financial stress many families now face.

“These last five years have been a very difficult time for everyone,’’ said Medford Mayor Michael J. McGlynn. “The last thing we want to do is put a greater burden on taxpayers.’’

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.

Biggest winners and losers
The highest requests in the region for property tax increases, either permanent (override) or temporary (debt exclusions), that have been decided this spring:
PASSED
Dracut
$59.96 million debt exclusion to renovate and expand Dracut High School
Groveland
$5.16 million debt to fund repairs at Bagnall Elementary School
Winchester
$17.98 million debt exclusion to fund construction of a new Vinson-Owen Elementary School.
FAILED
Chelmsford
$9.1 million debt exclusion for construction of a new Fire Department headquarters
Stoneham
$1.9 million override for various town departments
Winchester
$1.44 million override for general operating costs in various town departments
Full list of results, upcoming votes, Page 5